The 2013 movie “Trash” filmed in and around an open dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, provides a glimpse of solid waste management in developing countries—and even in industrialized nations where environmental regulations have not kept pace with rapid economic transformation.
With little source separation and processing of waste for recycling, the waste brought to the dump has enough recyclable materials with value to attract a colony of waste pickers who gather up whatever materials they think have value in large sacks to be resold.
The 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) held in Paris can be a catalyst for implementing an integrated solid waste systems in developing countries. Fundamental benefits for improving public health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be realized by such a system.
A circular materials management system segregates waste materials for remanufacturing and recycling; captures biological nutrients; and converts the residuals to renewable fuel and energy products. Such a system avoids groundwater contamination, generates green renewable electricity and steam and reduces vehicle fuel emissions.
Developing countries have an opportunity to benefit from embracing this circular economy approach. Unfortunately, while pickers extract as much value as they can from waste, little resources are dedicated to storing, collecting and managing wastes in a formal integrated approach.
The economies of many developing countries and political priorities just do not align for quantum leaps in investing in better solid waste management. Thus, the challenge to creating value from waste is catalyzing the financial commitment to improving the environment.
Investments in waste management infrastructure will need to be significant to provide the resources necessary for solid waste management with recycling and energy recovery infrastructure.
Whether from public or private sources, providing contractual assurances from creditworthy project participants makes it difficult to achieve the necessary comfort to support project financing. This is a big—hopefully not insurmountable—challenge.
What about the waste pickers who live on or next to the dump in shacks built from reclaimed materials? They live day to day to provide the basics of life for their families in meagre homes made from reclaimed materials.
If the current open dump system changes, this low-income population will be displaced. However, if the waste picker workforce can be converted to paid employment supporting the future infrastructure and services, their families could look forward to better housing, sanitation, nutrition and education.
If the aforementioned is accomplished, a flow of environmentally friendly materials, steam and electricity that could be used to drive new industries in these countries to help grow a country’s economy as well as improve the environment for their children’s children to see!